Monday, June 18, 2012

What is Close Reading?


The common core standards are encouraging teachers to engage students in close reading. Much of the focus of discussions of close reading have emphasized what teachers should not do (in terms of pre-reading, or types of questions). I am being asked with increasing frequency what close reading is. 

Close reading requires a substantial emphasis on readers figuring out a high quality text. This "figuring out" is accomplished primarily by reading and discussing the text (as opposed to being told about the text by a teacher or being informed about it through some textbook commentary). Because challenging texts do not give up their meanings easily, it is essential that readers re-read such texts (not all texts are worth close reading). A first reading is about figuring out what a text says. It is purely an issue of reading comprehension. Thus, if someone is reading a story, he/should be able to retell the plot; if someone is reading a science chapter, he/she should be able to answer questions about the key ideas and details of the text.

However, close reading requires that one go further than this. A second reading would, thus, focus on figuring out how this text worked. How did the author organize it? What literary devices were used and how effective were they? What was the quality of the evidence? If data were presented, how was that done? Why did the author choose this word or that word? Was the meaning of a key term consistent or did it change across the text? This second reading might be a total re-reading or a partial and targeted re-reading of key portions, but it would not be aimed at just determining what the text said (that would have already been accomplished by this point).

Finally, with the information gleaned from the first two readings, a reader is ready to carry out a third reading—going even deeper. What does this text mean? What was the author’s point? What does it have to say to me about my life or my world? How do I evaluate the quality of this work—aesthetically, substantively? How does this text connect to other texts I know? By waiting until we have a deep understanding of a text – of what it says and how it works—we are then in the right position intellectually and ethically to critically evaluate (valuing) a text and for connecting its ideas and approach with other texts.

Thus, close reading is an intensive analysis of a text in order to come to terms with what it says, how it says it, and what it means. In one sense I agree with those who say that close reading is about more than comprehension or about something different than comprehension, since it takes one beyond just figuring out an author’s stated and implied message. On the other hand, many definitions of reading comprehension include more than just determining a stated and implied message; such definitions include the full range of Bloom’s taxonomy in one’s thinking about and use of a text. If one subscribes to such definitions of comprehension, then close reading is just a description of a process one uses to arrive at such comprehension. 

I think with this brief description of the essentials of close reading (e.g., intense emphasis on text, figuring out the text by thinking about the words and ideas in the text, minimization of external explanations, multiple and dynamic rereading, multiple purposes that focus on what a text says, how it says it, and what it means or what its value is), teachers can start to think clearly about a number of issues in close reading.

Should I give the students a preview of a text? 
No, you probably should not, but it is not unreasonable to have students do their own look over, allowing them to get the lay of the land.

Is it okay to set a purpose for student reading? 
Yes, it is very reasonable to give students a purpose for reading (read to find out the differences between lions and tigers, or read to find out how this character deals with hard choices). But these purposes should not reveal a lot of information about the text that the students can find out by reading the text. Of course, if you are reading a text multiple times, each time for a different purpose, you might provide a lot more information on later readings. (This text used a lot of metaphorical language to describe how the characters felt, let's re-read those sections and discuss what the author was accomplishing by doing it that way.)

Does close reading require that every text be re-read? 
Yes, it really does, but that doesn't mean that every text should be given a close reading. Some texts should still be read only once; that is all they would be worth.

What if I am unsure whether to discuss prior knowledge before reading a text? 
If you think there is key information that students need to know before they read the text (something necessary for making sense of the text that isn't stated in the text), by all means tell it. If there is no  pre-information necessary, then don't make such a presentation or discussion. If you are uncertain, then let the kids have a chance to make sense of it. If it goes well, fine. If not, then add the information before the second reading. (I was just looking at an article on forest fires. "It is only partly true that 'only you' can prevent forest fires." That is a cute beginning, but I'm not sure all of the second-graders will recognize that it is referring to a Smokey the Bear line from a once-common public service announcement. I might want to clarify the source of that before students dug in. But if I didn't do that, I would definitely ask a question about this sentence, and would tell that info during the discussion. Sometimes I will anticipate and tell, but whether I do or not, I can always clarify it on discussion.

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

This article is wonderful and meets my needs perfectly. Thank you for posting a straight forward, easily understood article. I plan to reference it in Professional Development classes in the near future.

Anonymous said...

I agree with commenter #1, your article on close reading is really very clear and succinct. One of the questions that I would pose is "How do the elements of close reading move students to a new place in their thinking?" You have answered this question in many ways, but I would add that close reading allows students to question the text, to become, in an informed way, skeptical of the authority of the author. As Paul Connollly once observed, reading should be a "contact sport," and close reading helps us get there. Thanks again for boiling all of this down.
Ray Peterson

Tim Shanahan said...

It does separate the author from the text... something that I'm not entirely in sympathy with and, yet, I, too, can see its value (there is real power inherent in being able to make sense of a text through reading). My own research on children's conception of author are what led me to study New Criticism and close reading. Later, post-structuralist readings also aimed to undermine the author (in many ways), but in a more disconcerting way--paying less attention to the author's words than is common in close reading. Maybe I'll make an entry on that up the road.

Anonymous said...

I think it's important to point out that close reading also involves looking at the language of the text--both the linguistic structure and the syntactic forms that are used. Most written texts use a much more "formal" discourse than spoken language, and it's useful to help children deconstruct this discourse. Also, children can often get a deeper meaning when we use art or drama to scaffold meaning. For instance, I recently developed a series of close reading lessons on The Rough Face Girl, and when the students drew the items that were on the wigwam of the Invisible Being and the dress of the rough face girl, they were able to get a much deeper meaning, which helped them to answer the focus question. Developing close reading lessons takes much thought and several readings of the text in order to gain insights for developing higher-level questions and a comprehensive (central) focus question.

Tim Shanahan said...

That kind of a lesson might help students to better understand the text, but it also goes around the text rather than through it. That is not what is meant by close reading.

Unknown said...

On the issue of previewing a text - how can we not want kids to preview a text independently? We want to give them tools and strategies to get meaning from text - and a first step is for them to set their own purpose by previewing. How can this not be right?

Tim Shanahan said...

I don't disagree with you... and, yet, the previews that I see in classrooms almost always go far beyond the amount that I preview as a reader. I don't read many illustrated books, except for an occasional graphic novel, but I can't imagine looking at every picture before I read. I also don't read all the subheadings in a chapter before I read it. I'm not saying there is no place for that, but we tend to overdo such things--a little common sense with the common core would be a really good idea.

Anonymous said...

I can see covering the skill,predicting outcomes, in the second and third stage of close reading by breaking the whole into sections:rereading for clues, predicting the outcomes,and verifying them in the next passage, but what if you are using predicting outcomes in the beginning of a reading selection to increase student motivation and focus while reading. Where does predicting outcomes and connecting with prior knowledge fit in when using them to increase interest in the piece? Are these methods okay to use or do they conflict with the intentions of close reading?

Tim Shanahan said...

Anonymous--

There are lots of different conceptions of close reading. One of the things that they all agree on is that the major emphasis of discussion needs to be on the text. Someone like David Coleman would reject predicting as a reasonable close reading activity because it is too focused on student background and guessing and not focused enough on making sense of the text. I don't have a problem with it, but let's face it,predicting can be highly focused on the text and the use of text evidence or it can drift a bit; be careful. Predicting can be an acceptable first reading approach to me.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, that's a good way to remember the strengths of predicting and it's pitfalls in discussions. I'll remember to keep it focused on the text and its clues. I'll use prediction, initially, for motivation.

Do you believe KWL works with close reading or inhibits it?

Tim Shanahan said...

If the grade level is low enough, it can be helpful, but it is not much good as text gets more abstract and outside of kids' personal experiences.

Tim Shortt said...

I think it is also important to remember that close reading doesn't replace interactive read- aloud, shared reading, or strategy groups (or guided reading). People misinterpret close reading and its place in the literacy block. Skills such as predicting can be addressed in those other areas of reading instruction.

Tim Shanahan said...

Something that i've stressed over and over in this space is that close reading is an outcome, not an instructional technique. You certainly can guide kids into doing a close read, but there are lots of ways of doing that. we need to be more strategic as teachers, rather than just meekly following some scheme without any consideration for what we are trying to accomplish. Means and ends, means and ends.

Grace Ladd said...

Let's not forget that close reading of "text" can also apply to education in the arts. However, it is important to note that "text" must be broadly interpreted to include works of visual art and literature in terms of music. We are struggling with a literal interpretation of the term "text" as it applies to common core and implementation in other subject areas. Including, physical education, visual arts, music, technology, etc. The literal interpretation of "text" is not necessarily applicable to all areas.

Anonymous said...

If you didn't re-read this blog two additional times than you blew it!

Anonymous said...

This is a very clear, concise definition of close reading. How do you feel about the strategies Beers and Probst share in their book Notice and Note as it relates to close reading? If I were to use these strategies to teach close reading to 3rd or 4th graders, would I give the passage first as a cold read (aloud or independent), then introduce the strategy, then using gradual release, invite students to apply the strategy during a 2nd read?

Tim Shanahan said...

Lots of ways to do close reading and Beers and Probst recommend some good ones. You can have the kids do a cold read or you can do more of a guided reading (having the kids read a section or two of a selection and then discussing it).

I would divide up when I am engaging kids in a close, intensive read from when I am trying to teach them and guide them to use a particular strategy or technique. There is room for both, but they don't live together very well. As soon as you turn your attention to how well somebody is making marginal notes, your attention shifts from content to technique. (Close reading is a good opportunity for kids to use strategies that they already know with minimum attention and support from you).

Anonymous said...

OK, to piggy back off your comment that close reading is separate from strategy teaching. I am posing the action research question: How will explicit teaching of close reading strategies improve comprehension in 4th graders? My intent was to teach the strategies in the book Notice and Note, but now I'm reconsidering. You mentioned annotating the text. That is a great strategy for close reading.

Tim Shanahan said...

I would stay to comprehension strategies that have a strong research record (summarization, visualization, questioning, monitoring, thinking about text structure) rather than spending lots of time on strategies that you may or may not be able to make work.

The big idea of close reading is not to inculcate a whole new set of strategies but to engage students deeply in the reading of particularly meaty and high quality texts.

There are two theories at work here: One posits that readers will comprehend better if they have a collection of cognitive or metacognitive strategies that they can use intentionally when they interact with text. These strategies will engage them in thinking in particular ways (and to be mindful in particular ways while reading).

The other is that to be a good reader you have to be well practiced in reading. This theory claims that by engaging various texts deeply and coherently the reader comes away with greater knowledge (of language and the world as well as a greater sense of how text conveys ideas) and this insight is applicable to future readings. It is like a very sophisticated practice effect.

Both have research behind them. To be fair big strategy proponents have always cautioned teachers not to lose sight of the text when emphasizing strategies, but that advice is difficult to honor in the classroom. (While close reading proponents have stressed the idea of emphasizing the text, they often have kids coming away with generalizable insights--like names matter, or titles matter, so nobody is entirely pure on this).

I think it is easier for teachers and kids if they have times that they are entirely focused on close reading and other times when they are focused on trying to master reading techniques that they can use again and again (knowing that you should still try to get the text across when kids are focused on strategies, and that general insights about text should be developed when a text is being read closely).

Anonymous said...

I am honored to have your thoughts on this topic and appreciate your taking the time to respond. Your insight is invaluable. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful; thank you! I am wondering...

1. We have a strong emphasis on making connections throughout the grade levels. Is the research showing that the teachers' great focus on making connections actually takes student's away from the meaning of the text?

2. Do you know of any kid-friendly graphic organizers that will help guide students through the three purposeful readings?

Thanks so much!

Tim Shanahan said...

In fact, there is research showing that not all connections are equal. The issue is whether the connections lead you to think more deeply about the text or whether they lead you to think more about the connections. Thus, if the reader says, "My bicycle was stolen, too, so I know how this character feels. Given that, I think he won't trust the kids in his neighborhood as much so that explains for me why he talked to his friend the way he did. Now I wonder whether his friend will be understanding or just angry himself." There is a good chance that the connection will have led to better comprehension.

But what if instead the discussion goes like this: "My bicycle was stolen too, and it was a real pain. I had forgotten to lock it up, and boy was my dad mad about it. I didn't get a new bicycle until the next summer. What a pain." That connection is a distraction and instead of leading the student to think more about the ideas in the text, they became a replacement for the ideas in the text. Texts are not just reminders of what we already know. They need to serve as more than just jumping off points for reverie. (Merle Wittrock summarized the research on this back in the 1970s, in Review of Educational Research--text elaborations that get you to think about the text improve comprehension, elaborations that get you to think about something else than the text undermine comprehension).

I don't know of any graphic organizers for close reading.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your timely response! So, would you say that by taking the students through the three stages of close reading in order (with connecting being last)helps with this?

Tim Shanahan said...

If it is done well, that should be the outcome. That's the idea anyway. Of course, close reading doesn't need to be done in three reads. Connections could actually be made throughout a series of text discussions--as long as the teacher/guide recognizes the difference between those connections that engage the students deeply with the text and those that are an excuse for ignoring it.

Anonymous said...

I think reading all the previous posts has somewhat helped me understand close reading a bit more. My concern is that I keep hearing from the powers that be that I should only use a short text when doing a close read. And that I need to use only "text-dependent questions"? How much truth is there to this?

Tim Shanahan said...

Close reading does NOT require short text, though it is can be more practical in a classroom.... it usually takes more time for a longer text, but that isn't always the case. (I think the idea comes from the idea that the text will be re-read. However, re-readings can be in entirety or can be more targeted. So if you were close reading the Gettysburg Address, it would make sense to read the speech several times. However, if you were guiding students to re-read a 20-page chapter, you would dip into particular pages or paragraphs to focus attention on those parts.

In terms of questions, indeed, the idea is to ask questions that require knowledge of the text to answer. However, text-dependent questions are not necessarily literal questions or "right there questions."

Tim Shanahan said...

Close reading does NOT require short text, though it is can be more practical in a classroom.... it usually takes more time for a longer text, but that isn't always the case. (I think the idea comes from the idea that the text will be re-read. However, re-readings can be in entirety or can be more targeted. So if you were close reading the Gettysburg Address, it would make sense to read the speech several times. However, if you were guiding students to re-read a 20-page chapter, you would dip into particular pages or paragraphs to focus attention on those parts.

In terms of questions, indeed, the idea is to ask questions that require knowledge of the text to answer. However, text-dependent questions are not necessarily literal questions or "right there questions."

Tim Shanahan said...

Close reading does NOT require short text, though it is can be more practical in a classroom.... it usually takes more time for a longer text, but that isn't always the case. (I think the idea comes from the idea that the text will be re-read. However, re-readings can be in entirety or can be more targeted. So if you were close reading the Gettysburg Address, it would make sense to read the speech several times. However, if you were guiding students to re-read a 20-page chapter, you would dip into particular pages or paragraphs to focus attention on those parts.

In terms of questions, indeed, the idea is to ask questions that require knowledge of the text to answer. However, text-dependent questions are not necessarily literal questions or "right there questions."

Scienceteacher1991 said...

How is close reading really any different from the old SQ3R which calls for re-reading?

Tim Shanahan said...

Science Teacher--

Rereading and taking notes on what one reads are definitely part of close reading, but as you point out, they really aren't hallmarks of it since these are common practices in other kinds of reading as well.

Close reading has two hallmarks: First, the entire emphasis is on focusing on the text that the author has provided. It is really important to shut out other sources of information while you engage in a close read. (Those sources might include information that the teacher tells you, but it also might be ignoring the illustrations which probably didn't come from the author--this can be really important in science reading, since illustrations like photographs often are inaccurate or inappropriate to the texts).

Second, close reading emphasizes the accomplishment of multiple interpretive goals.

1. Readers have to understand what the text says (just like in SQ3R).

2. Readers have to understand how a text works... how the author's choices of words and structure support, extend, and reinforce the author's message. (Something not a focus in SQ3R). Thus, the teacher might ask students, why the author expressed the following idea using a passive sentence: "Excess sodium ions are released from the osmoregulatory organ under hypertonic conditions."

3. Readers have to critically respond to text and connect it up with other texts (in science, this might involve making connections across different parts of a text--like connecting a table of data up with a paragraph). Again, this isn't highlighted in SQ3R or other approaches to reading.

Your students will definitely need to reread and take notes to accomplish these three interpretive goals only using information from the text, but rereading and note-taking are just superficial aspects of the process.

Anonymous said...

can you suggest a good professional development book and what do you suggest for doing it with the basal

Tim Shanahan said...

Anonymous--

I know of no books about teaching close reading with basal readers/literature anthologies/core programs. However, there is nothing special about those sources. You still will have to focus on texts that have a depth of meaning (e.g., layers of meaning, alternative interpretations, symbolism, worthwhile content), and you will have to focus your questions on the texts themselves (rather than on the kids' background knowledge, etc.). You will likely spend more time on such selections than the publisher recommends, but in such a case you would just be using it as a source of texts anyway, so that shouldn't be a problem.